undyingking: (Default)
Yesterday read a book all the way through, from about 5 to 11 pm with a break for dinner – very unusual for me. The reason being that it was extremely good! The Magicians, by Lev Grossman. I'd seen recommendations from various people, most recently [livejournal.com profile] sturgeonslawyer who prompted me to give it a go (thanks, Dan'l).

The book is a deeply impressive intellectual achievement, and also gripping, funny, moving and thought-provoking. The capsule description (a kid goes to a magical college and thence into a fantasy land) makes it sound derivative of, among other things, Harry Potter and Narnia. But actually it is a thoughtful and insightful commentary on how the subgenres represented by those two series operate, and what they imply. I guess the closest I can come is that it bears the same sort of sideways relationship to them as Rosencrantz and Guidenstern Are Dead does to Hamlet.

But that makes The Magicians sound like a nerdy exercise in alluson-spotting, whereas (although that is true to some extent) it also works very well as an entertaining novel. Grossman really is a very skillful writer. Some of his sentences and images are extremely beautifully formed. And the energy and conciseness of his narrative is admirable – he spirits you along through quick successions of events, covering a lot of story very quickly, but without neglecting his characters' development along the way.

I see there's a sequel: interested to see how that works. The book seems to have said all it needs to in itself, so I'm not sure where he could go next. Anyone read The Magician King?
undyingking: (Default)
Yesterday read a book all the way through, from about 5 to 11 pm with a break for dinner – very unusual for me. The reason being that it was extremely good! The Magicians, by Lev Grossman. I'd seen recommendations from various people, most recently [livejournal.com profile] sturgeonslawyer who prompted me to give it a go (thanks, Dan'l).

The book is a deeply impressive intellectual achievement, and also gripping, funny, moving and thought-provoking. The capsule description (a kid goes to a magical college and thence into a fantasy land) makes it sound derivative of, among other things, Harry Potter and Narnia. But actually it is a thoughtful and insightful commentary on how the subgenres represented by those two series operate, and what they imply. I guess the closest I can come is that it bears the same sort of sideways relationship to them as Rosencrantz and Guidenstern Are Dead does to Hamlet.

But that makes The Magicians sound like a nerdy exercise in alluson-spotting, whereas (although that is true to some extent) it also works very well as an entertaining novel. Grossman really is a very skillful writer. Some of his sentences and images are extremely beautifully formed. And the energy and conciseness of his narrative is admirable – he spirits you along through quick successions of events, covering a lot of story very quickly, but without neglecting his characters' development along the way.

I see there's a sequel: interested to see how that works. The book seems to have said all it needs to in itself, so I'm not sure where he could go next. Anyone read The Magician King?
undyingking: (Default)
She died a few days ago, but it's taken me a little while to collect thoughts. She had reached the age of 77, and had been ill for some time, but even so it came as a shock.

I suppose I feel particularly saddened because her writing was very important to me when I was growing up. I think I first came across her with Wilkins' Tooth in about 1975, fell in love straight away, and from then on pretty much read them as they came out.

Apart from the tremendous invention and vividity of her writing, she struck a particular chord with me (and I suspect this is true of many of her readers) because of the way she handles her often powerless, often friendless protagonists. Of course, the idea of child protagonists needing to find their place in the world is classic in children's literature. But Diana was unusual in the unsentimentality, even ruthlessness, with which she displayed the forces of adversity. I learned much later that this came from her own unpleasant childhood (more or less portrayed in Time of the Ghost), but at the time, I just felt that she had a great understanding of what would strike chords with my own unhappiness. So her writing was emotionally satisfying in a way that few other authors (Jacqueline Wilson is the only other who springs to mind) are able, or maybe dare, to manage.

As I got older I continued reading her books, now most admiring of her skillful plotting. Charmed Life is perhaps my favourite, because of the watch-mechanism-like neatness of the way its different plot elements fit together and resolve. I also greatly admire the vision and scope of the Dalemark books, which I think match Alan Garner in bringing the power of myth to life: and again, tremendously clever in structure. And I value her fierce emphasis on the need to think for oneself: this is perhaps the most important 'message' of her writing. Auhtority is not to be accepted unquestioningly: by adults any more than by children.

I only met her once, in about 1998, but that was great fun and she was just how I imagined: like a kindly auntie of whose unpredictability and forthrightness one may remain slightly wary. I hope that, like her great influence E. Nesbit, her works live on for the children of many future generations.
undyingking: (Default)
She died a few days ago, but it's taken me a little while to collect thoughts. She had reached the age of 77, and had been ill for some time, but even so it came as a shock.

I suppose I feel particularly saddened because her writing was very important to me when I was growing up. I think I first came across her with Wilkins' Tooth in about 1975, fell in love straight away, and from then on pretty much read them as they came out.

Apart from the tremendous invention and vividity of her writing, she struck a particular chord with me (and I suspect this is true of many of her readers) because of the way she handles her often powerless, often friendless protagonists. Of course, the idea of child protagonists needing to find their place in the world is classic in children's literature. But Diana was unusual in the unsentimentality, even ruthlessness, with which she displayed the forces of adversity. I learned much later that this came from her own unpleasant childhood (more or less portrayed in Time of the Ghost), but at the time, I just felt that she had a great understanding of what would strike chords with my own unhappiness. So her writing was emotionally satisfying in a way that few other authors (Jacqueline Wilson is the only other who springs to mind) are able, or maybe dare, to manage.

As I got older I continued reading her books, now most admiring of her skillful plotting. Charmed Life is perhaps my favourite, because of the watch-mechanism-like neatness of the way its different plot elements fit together and resolve. I also greatly admire the vision and scope of the Dalemark books, which I think match Alan Garner in bringing the power of myth to life: and again, tremendously clever in structure. And I value her fierce emphasis on the need to think for oneself: this is perhaps the most important 'message' of her writing. Auhtority is not to be accepted unquestioningly: by adults any more than by children.

I only met her once, in about 1998, but that was great fun and she was just how I imagined: like a kindly auntie of whose unpredictability and forthrightness one may remain slightly wary. I hope that, like her great influence E. Nesbit, her works live on for the children of many future generations.
undyingking: (Default)
The book I am reading:
Several at once, but notably the new Twilight Robbery by Frances Hardinge. Highly recommended of course!
The book I love most:
Difficult to name just one really. Perhaps Diana Wynne Jones's Charmed Life.
The last book I received as a gift:
I got a few at Christmas... Max Ernst's Une Semaine de Bonté might have been the latest of those, from my sister.
The last book I gave as a gift:
In Spite of the Gods, by Edward Luce, for my dad.
The nearest book:
Xenophon's The Persian Expedition, in Rex Warner's translation. On the cupboard just behind me, where I emptied it out of my laptop bag after last time I went to London on the train.
undyingking: (Default)
The book I am reading:
Several at once, but notably the new Twilight Robbery by Frances Hardinge. Highly recommended of course!
The book I love most:
Difficult to name just one really. Perhaps Diana Wynne Jones's Charmed Life.
The last book I received as a gift:
I got a few at Christmas... Max Ernst's Une Semaine de Bonté might have been the latest of those, from my sister.
The last book I gave as a gift:
In Spite of the Gods, by Edward Luce, for my dad.
The nearest book:
Xenophon's The Persian Expedition, in Rex Warner's translation. On the cupboard just behind me, where I emptied it out of my laptop bag after last time I went to London on the train.
undyingking: (Default)
You might have heard the joke that X's books were in fact not written by X, but by another man of the same name. I find it interesting because, while being entertainingly silly as a proposition, it also asks a fairly serious question about what we mean by authorship and how historical record works. But that's not what this post is about! – I'm curious to know, as your recollection serves you:

[Poll #1666257]
undyingking: (Default)
You might have heard the joke that X's books were in fact not written by X, but by another man of the same name. I find it interesting because, while being entertainingly silly as a proposition, it also asks a fairly serious question about what we mean by authorship and how historical record works. But that's not what this post is about! – I'm curious to know, as your recollection serves you:

[Poll #1666257]
undyingking: (Default)
In my dream last night I was preparing to go to a party with a Pale Fire theme. I was uncomfortably aware of not having read the book for years, and not being up to speed on the busy world of its exegesis and explication. Also, I had no idea of what to wear as costume. My tentative plan was going to be to ask the other, more knowledgeable, guests "Are you a Shadeite or a non-Shadeite?"; and then nod in the right places, smile politely and sip my drink as they expounded their personal theories.

This is possibly the most culturally highbrow dream I've ever had – I am quite impressed with my unconscious (although I think the term for one who believes John Shade also wrote the Charles Kinbote material is actually "Shadean" rather than "Shadeite").

If you haven't read Pale Fire, by the way, you really must: it's brilliant, and also very funny. At least, I think so: but what do you think? 1 = bad, 10 = good.

[Poll #1664071]

And I should reread it, as that bit of the dream at least was true.
undyingking: (Default)
In my dream last night I was preparing to go to a party with a Pale Fire theme. I was uncomfortably aware of not having read the book for years, and not being up to speed on the busy world of its exegesis and explication. Also, I had no idea of what to wear as costume. My tentative plan was going to be to ask the other, more knowledgeable, guests "Are you a Shadeite or a non-Shadeite?"; and then nod in the right places, smile politely and sip my drink as they expounded their personal theories.

This is possibly the most culturally highbrow dream I've ever had – I am quite impressed with my unconscious (although I think the term for one who believes John Shade also wrote the Charles Kinbote material is actually "Shadean" rather than "Shadeite").

If you haven't read Pale Fire, by the way, you really must: it's brilliant, and also very funny. At least, I think so: but what do you think? 1 = bad, 10 = good.

[Poll #1664071]

And I should reread it, as that bit of the dream at least was true.
undyingking: (Default)
It's National Poetry Day! – so to celebrate, here's one of my favourite short poems, John Keats's 'On First Looking into Chapman's Homer', which he wrote when he was just 21:
Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne; 
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific — and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
I like this poem because I think it conveys ably the sense of wonder a reader can feel on encountering a new literary experience. I've never read Chapman's translation of Homer myself, but there've been plenty of other things that have made me feel 'like some new planet swam into my ken'. Structurally, the poem is a great example of how to write a Petrarchan sonnet, and takes good advantage of the two parts of the form to make the point of its story. But most importantly, the closing image is to me a fantastically powerful one. (Arthur Ransome must have thought so too, as he uses it repeatedly in the Swallows and Amazons books.)

It is perhaps slightly unfortunate that it was actually Balboa, not Cortez, who led the first European expedition to look upon the Pacific. But we can forgive Keats that.

Finally, here's the same thing in the form of a limerick, even more concise:
There once was a Homer translation,
That showed me a novel sensation:
Like Cortez's men,
Standing on Darien,
I breathed the serene of Creation.
undyingking: (Default)
It's National Poetry Day! – so to celebrate, here's one of my favourite short poems, John Keats's 'On First Looking into Chapman's Homer', which he wrote when he was just 21:
Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne; 
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific — and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
I like this poem because I think it conveys ably the sense of wonder a reader can feel on encountering a new literary experience. I've never read Chapman's translation of Homer myself, but there've been plenty of other things that have made me feel 'like some new planet swam into my ken'. Structurally, the poem is a great example of how to write a Petrarchan sonnet, and takes good advantage of the two parts of the form to make the point of its story. But most importantly, the closing image is to me a fantastically powerful one. (Arthur Ransome must have thought so too, as he uses it repeatedly in the Swallows and Amazons books.)

It is perhaps slightly unfortunate that it was actually Balboa, not Cortez, who led the first European expedition to look upon the Pacific. But we can forgive Keats that.

Finally, here's the same thing in the form of a limerick, even more concise:
There once was a Homer translation,
That showed me a novel sensation:
Like Cortez's men,
Standing on Darien,
I breathed the serene of Creation.
undyingking: (Default)
Just bought a cheapie secondhand copy of Bruno Bettelheim's fairy-tale-analysis classic The Uses of Enchantment, and opened it up to find that it had been signed by the author.

Is that the modern-fantasy equivalent of catching a fish and finding a gold ring in its tummy?
undyingking: (Default)
Interesting story from Peter Watts, looking at an SF classic (short story and film) from an alternative perspective. It's not really very good writing (he said politely), but it's good SF in the sense of making you think about things slightly differently.
"That was how these empty skins moved of their own volition, why I'd found no other network to integrate. There it was: not distributed throughout the body but balled up into itself, dark and dense and encysted.  I had found the ghost in these machines."

[Poll #1507038]
undyingking: (Default)
(Also known as, closing some tabs.)
  • Democracy Club -- an organization formed to help make the next UK general election more open and accountable, by crowdsourcing info. Affiliated with mySociety and other such. I've signed up -- recommend you do so too, if you are concerned about our political system and want to do more than just whinge.
  • Emails from Crazy People -- what it says. Some are funnier than others.
  • FlickrPoet -- enter the text of a poem (or any text really), it grabs images form Flickr to illustrate it. Can be quite thought-provoking, or at least mildly distracting. A neat implementation of a simple idea.
  • LJ statistics -- I think only for people with paid-for accounts. A useful set of charts showing people viewing your journal (for real or via their friends' page), comments, RSS readers and so on. Not something I'd hugely missed before, but still nice to have it now.
  • Great Christmas decoration -- on Snopes, so you may have already seen it a squillion times. But I laughed.
  • Drench -- a clever, well-implemented Flash game. Warning: can be quite addictive. The design of the "gameishness" of it is not quite right, but the actual play is very good.
  • Dean Ashton retires -- a couple of weeks ago now, but I'm still brooding on it. Feeling sorry for him, but (selfishly) more so for West Ham, who have been robbed of a player who seemed likely to become a club great. A strong and wily targetman, deadly finisher from close and from medium range, and an extremely good provider / manufacturer of scoring opportunities for his teammates too. All he was lacking really was pace over the ground. I just hope we get sacks full of compensation from the FA, as it was in training for an England game that Shaun Wright-Phillips crocked him.
  • Boozecats -- what if cats were booze, or possibly vice versa? A strange idea, but it turns out to be quite visually appealing.
  • Visualizing and predicting prime numbers -- this is a really great data visualization, via the excellent Infosthetics blog. The idea of using it to predict primes is a bit hokey (compare the Wheel of Primes), but it looks terrific.
  • CYOA -- another one from Infosthetics, it includes a number of very visually appealing ways of diagramming a Chose Your Own Adventure, and a discussion of their structures.
  • Harry Keeler on plotting -- Keeler was a rather interesting mystery author of the mid-C20, responsible for such titles as The Case of the Two-Headed Idiot, I Killed Lincoln at 10:13!, The Crimson Cube and The Man with the Magic Eardrums. This article outlines his particular method of constructing what he called web-work plots, and the diagrams thereto. You can read some of his actual fiction here.
  • Oscar Wilde on The Soul of Man under Socialism -- a thought-provoking essay, reminding one that Wilde wasn't just an entertainer. Some questionable reasoning, but very readable of course.
  • Wordnik -- there are heaps of online dictionaries, but this is something different -- it includes recent tweets and Flickr postings, and lots of usage examples. OK, not really very useful, but great fun to browse.
Lots of fairly random stuff there! -- it'd be interesting to know which (if any) of it you found interesting yourself. Do please comment and say!

Book!

Oct. 26th, 2009 02:51 pm
undyingking: (Default)
Just learned that Bob Lloyd, who I haven't seen in ages (as he went to live in Spain, and me in Ipswich) has got his book out -- Leaving the Land of Woo.
"Leaving The Land Of Woo takes a critical look at the strange theories underpinning the claims of alternative medicine, food therapies such as diets and detox, religion, and the paranormal. Whether it is a claim to talk to supernatural being, or to be able to detox our bodies with a special, whether it is to be able to cure us with homeopathy, or align our chakras, these claims rely on untestable theory and a belief in undetectable forces and energies. They require us to be believers rather than critical consumers. Leaving The Land of Woo shows how these areas of irrationality are closely related, and how to leave them behind."
I haven't read it myself, but Bob is a very decent sort as well as being a funny guy, so give it a go if you think it sounds like your cup of detox tea. He used to be in the Donnington Arms B pub quiz team, with me, also with such luminaries as [livejournal.com profile] venta and [livejournal.com profile] quantumboo, back in the day -- that's how I first knew him.

Flame on!

Sep. 3rd, 2009 08:48 am
undyingking: (Default)
People who don't regularly follow [livejournal.com profile] pepysdiary, it's just got to a particularly interesting bit.
At last met my Lord Mayor in Canningstreet, like a man spent, with a handkercher about his neck. To the King's message he cried, like a fainting woman, "Lord! what can I do? I am spent: people will not obey me. I have been pulling down houses; but the fire overtakes us faster than we can do it."

There is some really fine, powerful writing in this entry. Most of the diary is Pepys talking about his fairly petty domestic and work concerns; but when he has something important to write about, he can fly.
... as far as we could see up the hill of the City, in a most horrid malicious bloody flame, not like the fine flame of an ordinary fire. Barbary and her husband away before us. We staid till, it being darkish, we saw the fire as only one entire arch of fire from this to the other side the bridge, and in a bow up the hill for an arch of above a mile long: it made me weep to see it. The churches, houses, and all on fire and flaming at once; and a horrid noise the flames made, and the cracking of houses at their ruins.
undyingking: (Default)
In all this recent kerfuffle about ZOMG sperm!, I haven't yet noticed any of the media coverage making reference to John Wyndham's 'Consider Her Ways'. Which you'd think would be obvious. A small kduo to the first mainstram commentator to do so, I think -- tell me if you spot one.

(And a very large kudo if anyone spots a mention of Gene Wolfe's interesting but rather baffling 'In Looking-Glass Castle', which is also relevant.)


In other news, thanks to the people who came up with ideas and who helped me test my PHP -> MySQL problem the other day -- it turns out it was indeed in the server configuration. The hosting tech support eventually told me that they've set it up deliberately so as to forbid any communication with external databases. The reason being that they see this as a major security risk. (I didn't ask them why; I'd lost most of the will to live by that stage.)
undyingking: (Default)
A conversation on a friend's journal prompted the discovery of a new game, which all the family can play in the comfort of the comments section of this post.

The idea is to write a brief publisher's blurb for a well-known book, that avoids spoilering it. This is, of course, particularly tricky when a big plot twist, or unexpected transformation in what sort of book it actually is, is a major feature of the enjoyability of the reading experience. You don't want to give it all away, but you also don't want to undersell the book based just on how it initially starts to read.

So there are various ways you can do well at this game. You could write a puzzle blurb which, while entirely accurate about the book's initial setup scenario, so avoids the major twist that it's difficult to work out what book it actually is. You could write a bathos blurb about an amazingly exciting book in such a way that it sounds incredibly dull, because of the avoidance of spoilers. You could try to write a sincere blurb that really does a good job of making people think "this book sounds interesting" while not mentioning the most interesting thing about it. You could decide for yourself what will be most challenging / fun / silly / whatever! Or you can take part from the other end, guessing what the books are that are being blurbed.

And, of course, style points are awarded for sticking closely to the curious kind of prose that book blurbs use.

Here's a couple of my own examples from the earlier conversation, which go for the bathos approach:
  • "Four children go to stay with their great-uncle and are very bored... until one of them discovers something exciting at the back of a large wardrobe."
  • "Alice, feeling hot and sleepy on the riverbank, sees a rabbit go down a hole. But this is no ordinary rabbit..."

And a funnier one, from [livejournal.com profile] onebyone:
  • "A solicitor takes an entire chapter just in travelling to Eastern Europe to do some conveyancing for a local bigwig. The locals are stereotypically superstitious. Towards the end of chapter two, something distinctly uncanny happens, but it would be, like, a total spoiler to say what caused it. Chapter three promises to start getting into the details of the conveyancing. Please read me anyway."
But you can do better! Go on, prove me right.
undyingking: (Default)
  • "It was only when he did not get up to take a bow that anyone realised something had gone wrong."
    This is the sort of story that if you put it in a murder mystery game, it would be dismissed as too absurd. Well done, Mr Hoevels, especially for coming back on the following night.
  • "Another stage-property that he pulled out of his box pretty frequently was the broken twig. He prized his broken twig above all the rest of his effects, and worked it the hardest. It is a restful chapter in any book of his when somebody doesn't step on a dry twig and alarm all the reds and whites for two hundred yards around."
    Mark Twain was an excellent writer himself, and a still more excelent journalist. Here he demolishes a considerably less excellent pen. This really is a supreme hatchet job; thanks to [livejournal.com profile] sturgeonslawyer for the link.
  • "Using a variety of store-bought teddy bears as ‘species’ source material, I am reverse-engineering what their skulls look like and the differences and similarities between ‘breeds.’ My approach is to make up evidence and document, present, and interpret that evidence in a formal manner."
    I can't remember now where I heard of this artist who makes peculiar sculptures out of felted wool. More power to her needling elbow, say I.
  • "fachys.ykal.ar.ataiin.shol.shory.cthres.ykor.sholdy
    sory.cthar.or.y.kair.chtaiin.shar.are.cthar.cthar.dan"

    I've been doing some reading recently about the Voynich manuscript, that most intriguing document. I hadn't realized that there had been so much respectable textual analysis of it. One day I'll work out a way of using this and other such cryptic artefacts in something creative, but for now it's just interesting to follow the existing delvings int it. (Former UNEXPLAINED players will note that this site is hosted in Nauru, of all places...)

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